We just completed a winemaker dinner and tasting with the iconic California winery, Ridge. They have been around since the mid-'60s and their director of winemaking, Paul Draper, has been with the winery since 1969 - a lengthy tenure, by any standard. Christina Donley, who joined us from the winery, shared some of the wonderful history of this consistently great producer with all who attended.
The winemaker dinner was held at Angelo's, and before we get to what was one of the most fascinating and informative discussions of the weekend, we would be remiss if we did not talk a bit about the dinner. Chef John, who now runs the kitchen with Angelo's guidance, is simply fabulous. His food is creative, delicious and always designed to pair well with the wines at these events. If you have not been to Angelo's in a while, you should go: the food is simply wonderful, and it will be well worth the trip. The service, too, was spot on and timed perfectly, especially coordinating service of four courses for more than 40 folks.
The Ridge wines current and past vintages are elegant and well-balanced. While they are not inexpensive - ranging in price for most varietals from $25 to over $50 retail - they are not overpriced either, given the aggressive pricing that comes out of California these days. Considering the quality of the juice, the long tenure of Paul Draper and the consistent run Ridge has put together, they are more than fairly priced.
Mary and I have been drinking Ridge wines for many vintages, with bottles in our personal collection dating to the 1994 vintage. We have always found their use of oak to be refreshingly restrained. The wines do not taste overly oaked, which made Christina's discussion of their oak program so fascinating. Ridge uses all American oak barrels, with medium to medium heavy toast!
We have always assumed that the finer-grained French oak barrels impart more balanced oak flavors, but there are other factors that make that generalization inaccurate. When oak barrels for wine ageing are manufactured, the staves are cut and formed. In most cases they are kiln-dried, which is a faster process. After drying, the staves are then connected on one end by the metal band, then they are placed over an open fire and toasted to varying levels.
At Ridge, they only air-dry their staves - a much slower and more expensive process. They are left out in the elements for a long time, two to three years, naturally ageing and drying. The barrels are then formed and toasted. Turns out this difference in drying is key, allowing much of the natural moisture to slowly leach from the wood so when the barrels are toasted, you end up with a less oaky flavor. In combination with Ridge's approach of using a combination of small percentages of new oak barrels compared to two-, three- and four-fill barrels, you end up with wines that are restrained and elegant, aged in all American oak, that are not overly oaked.
Despite our winery experience, this is the first time we have heard of the distinction of air-dried versus kiln-dried barrel staves and the difference it imparts on the wine. Christina also went on to talk about Ridge using only native yeast versus commercially purchased yeast to ferment the wine. The movement to native yeasts has been gaining momentum recently, for its ability to create more natural flavors more closely tied to the terroir of the vineyards. For Ridge, though, it is a "way of life" that dates to the founding of the winery in the 1960s, a commitment that no doubt contributes to the quality and tastiness of the wine.
For wine consumers, this new information and knowledge is reason enough to attend tastings with winemakers and winery folks: there is always more to learn. While finding wines you like to drink is the ultimate goal for all of us, this knowledge helps us understand why we like what we like, and also helps us find similar wines that will broaden our selections.
If there is a topic you would like to read about, or if you have questions on wine, you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com, or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d'Alene Press.
George Balling is co-owner with his wife Mary Lancaster of the dinner party, a wine and table top decor shop in Coeur d'Alene by Costco. George has also worked as a judge in many wine competitions; his articles are published around the country and is the wine editor for Coeur d'Alene magazine www.cdamagazine.com. You can learn more about the dinner party at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com. You can get all of these articles, as well as other great wine tips, by friending us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.